'Seeing Kabul, thinking Saigon': Germany ignored warnings of Taliban victory

Leaked papers reveal missed chances to evacuate before fall of Afghan government in 2021

Germany airlifted about 5,000 people out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul but documents reveal it was advised to start before then. AFP
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Germany ignored warnings of the imminent fall of Kabul and missed chances to evacuate people before the Taliban seized power in 2021, according to leaked documents.

Officials blocked a rapid relocation of Afghan staff amid fears of a refugee crisis erupting before an election, newspaper Die Zeit reported, citing a trove of emails and classified papers on the crisis.

Not until August 14, the day before the fall of the western-backed government in Afghanistan, did Germany put its forces on alert before an evacuation from Kabul was ordered the following day.

More than 5,000 people were airlifted out in a chaotic end to the 20-year German presence in Afghanistan, in which 93,000 troops were deployed, with 59 killed, as part of the US-led coalition.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor at the time, conceded that allies had underestimated how quickly Afghan government forces would collapse in the face of the Taliban advance.

Two official inquiries are continuing but the leaked papers bring to light previously unreported warnings from German officials, which went unheeded by Mrs Merkel’s government.

An August 6 memo with the subject line “seeing Kabul, thinking Saigon”, referring to the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, was copied to the chancellery from Germany’s ambassador in the US, Emily Haber.

Her report said the US was preparing to withdraw staff and suggested Germany could prepare an evacuation – but a crisis meeting was only called a week later, after she followed up her report. Ms Haber was also told there was no need to postpone a summer holiday.

An updated travel warning to Germans in Afghanistan was meanwhile held back by three days as officials debated which language should be used in a social media post, it is claimed.

The documents also suggest officials misjudged the risk that Kabul would fall. An August 3 intelligence assessment said it would be two years at the earliest before the Taliban could control Afghanistan.

Allied forces including the US military’s Central Command, which covers the Middle East and Central Asia, had apparently shared intelligence with Germany on the risks of a Taliban victory.

Despite this, one German foreign ministry official was asked whether Germany was prepared for a worst case in which Kabul was captured and replied: “Definitely not for such an extreme scenario.”

The interior ministry is criticised for allegedly slow-walking the intake of Afghan staff such as translators and security guards.

A chancellery memo cites the minister as saying there should be “no big refugee discussion in the coming weeks” as Germany prepared for a general election in September 2021.

Mrs Merkel, whose decision to welcome in Syrian refugees in 2015 sparked an intense domestic backlash, spoke of not wanting to “repeat the mistakes” of that year. She did not run in the election.

Visas for Afghan staff have since been held up by security concerns, with procedures tightened after suspected Islamist extremists applied to enter Germany.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 1:43 PM